French whine at US takeover

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The Independent Online
ONE of the biggest Californian wine producers has set up a company to produce American wine in France, or at least French wine with an American accent.

The project will please some wine producers in the Languedoc region, who can expect to sell up to 10 million bottles a year on the US market under the label of Robert Mondavi, the third largest producer in the Californian Napa Valley.

But the aim of Mondavi - to create a new variety of French wine which appeals to the American palate - will alarm many wine purists. There is already concern that some French wines, including expensive labels, are being debased to appeal to unsubtle foreign tastes.

Traditionally, French wine is supposed to draw its character from the subtleties of local topography and local production techniques - the very nature of "le terroir" (the soil).

French experts say that there is an increasing temptation among French producers to abandon this tradition and go for the evenness of quality and strength of taste of a typical American, or Chilean or Australian wine. This depends on more intensive methods of wine-manufacture and boosts the importance of the type of grape used over the importance of the "terroir".

This appears to be precisely what Robert Mondavi intends to do with its new "Vichon Meditteranean" label: to apply American production methods to French raw materials. The plan is to create a range of French red wines - from pounds 5 to pounds 25 a bottle - "adapted to American tastes".

Whether or not American tastes are inferior to French tastes is a matter for endless argument. French experts say a typical American wine is "virile" rather than "subtle". As one defender of French wine heritage puts it, American wine "hits you in the palate like a thick layer of wine jam".

Robert Mondavi's venture is being driven partly by a shortage of American wine, following an outbreak of the phylloxera disease in vineyards in California. It is also intended to take advantage of a renewed fad for French red wine in the US.

Initially, Mondavi will purchase grapes from local French producers. Eventually it hopes to buy its own vineyards.